"Let’s Keep Our Eyes on What Future Voters Are Reading! – A Review of Michelle Ann Abate’s Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism" by Zsuzsanna Tóth
Zsuzsanna Tóth is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Her research interests include religious symbolism, cultural memory and theories of verbal and visual representation. Email:
Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism
Abate, Michelle Ann
New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, September 5, 2010
6 × 0.9 × 9 inches, 260 pages
Representing a cheerful and seemingly patriotic big family surrounded by bright yellow, red and blue colours, the book cover of Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism (2010) already suggests that the author, Michelle Ann Abate, an associate professor of English at Hollins University in Virginia, sheds light on a group of contemporary American narratives having “a clear intent to influence the sentiment of the American public in general and the nation’s children in particular” (vii). The conservative movement and right-wing politics constitute the centre of Abate’s investigation in which she examines the typography, characters, plots, themes and illustrations in William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (1993), Terri Birkett’s Truax (1995), Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind series (1995-2007), Lynne Cheney’s America: A Patriotic Primer (2002), Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor for Kids (2004) and Katharine DeBrecht’s Help! Mom! series (2004-2006).
The introduction, entitled “ ‘In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All.’ The Conservative Tradition in U. S. Children’s Literature, Culture, and Politics” opens with stating the aim and scope of Abate’s research, and then it touches upon the significance and spatio-temporal boundaries of the author’s study. This research has been shaped by the fact that throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, American popular, intellectual and material culture witnessed a powerful rise of not only the conservative movement but also of right-wing politics, which, according to Abate, was the result of the fusion of anticommunism, libertarianism and traditionalism (12). In spite of the massive media attention that conservative viewpoints and right-leaning political ideas have received since the 1990s, she asserts that comparatively little scholarly attention has been paid to their presence in books for young readers, even by critics working in the fields of children’s literature and American popular culture. Covering as diverse fields as cultural studies, literary criticism, political science, popular culture, childhood studies, brand marketing and the study of the cult of celebrity in the United States, this interdisciplinary study offers “a long overdue corrective to this neglect” (5). Abate aims to prove that this new genre of conservative-themed narratives for young readers not only embodies an important intellectual, material and cultural component to the power of millennial social conservatism and the growth of the Grand Old Party, but it also marks one of the few times in U. S. history when “what would formerly have been considered a specialized minority faction has become firmly implanted in mass culture” (25). The rest of the introduction provides an overview of the conservative movement and the increasing national visibility, social power and cultural influence of the politics of the right in the United States since the end of World War II until the 2008 presidential election unseating the Conservatives from power.
From here on, each chapter is devoted to the analysis of a given book, in a chronological order largely following the dates of publication. Arising from the Conservatives’ desperate struggle to turn back time, the message of these books are cunningly disguised as calls for doing the patriotic duty of standing for the American nation’s morality, industry, religion, history, self-reliance, and unity against the enemy inside (liberalism), respectively. Abate’s thorough unveiling of each author’s original profession, former political activity, and other published works reveals that the education of future generations is not the true motivation for these writers. Therefore, although these texts have been commercially successful in the United States because of, among others, the patriotic needs generated by the coming new millennium and the attacks of 11th September 2001, I can say without exaggeration that at the end of her study all of them turn out to be books that sane and responsible parents would never give into the hands of their children.
Chapter 1, “ ‘Give Me Some of That Old-Time Reading.’ William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues and the Rise of Right-Leaning Literature for Young Readers” revolves around The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (1993) written by the Republican politician William Bennett, containing selections taken from the canon of Western civilization, classical Greco-Roman philosophy and the so-called “Great Books” of American and British literature. In order to “aid in the time-honoured task of the moral education of the young” (31), this book is shaped by
the wishful romanticization and even nostalgic idealism of a ‘kinder, gentler’ time before the upheavals of the civil rights movement, the rise of postmodernist thought, and the numerous transformations to American family life through the advances made by second-wave feminism, the advent of multiculturalism, and the growth of the LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer] movement (31).
However, in this chapter Abate highlights in detail that, in the context of the New Right returning to power in the early 1990s, how Bennett himself and the lessons offered in his writing are full of hypocrisy and manipulative devices, thus it is far from beneficial for children. Abate argues that the book’s implausibly homogeneous approach to Western culture, the latent condescension of the target audience, and “a series of moral maxims that are as neat and tidy as they are impractical and unrealistic” (37) are the main reasons why the book is not suitable for children.
Chapter 2, “ ‘I Speak for the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association.’ Truax, the Anti-Green Movement, and the Corporate Production of Children’s Literature” is devoted to the comparison of Dr. Theodore Seuss’ book, The Lorax (1971), read as a call for environmental protection in general and the protection of trees in particular against late twentieth-century American capitalism, to Terri Birkett’s Truax (1995), released by the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association. Abate claims that by the spread of conservative viewpoints, Truax symbolizes two seemingly contrasting tendencies by the 1990s: “the bottom-up influence that grassroots efforts by individuals (…) had in advancing the movement’s social, cultural and political agenda” on the one hand, and “the top-down influence that the growing involvement of big business (…) had on the agenda of the conservative movement and political right” (56). Strictly speaking, taking the timber industry’s interests in destructing forests into account, the book is virtually based on conscious misinformation, which is the sad manifestation of how certain people can attribute more importance to short-time economic profit than long-term global safety. As the result of the increasing corporate sponsorship of children’s literature, Truax embodies the total denial of teaching children how to take active responsibility not only for themselves, but also for future generations.
Chapter 3, “Not Just Christianity, But the Christian Right: The Battle over Public Education and the American Sunday School Movement in the Left Behind Series for Kids,” discusses the Left Behind series of sixteen young adult novels (1995-2007) released by U. S. evangelical minister Tim LaHaye and prolific Christian writer Jerry B. Jenkins. The novels follow the experiences of four adolescents during the seven-year period known as Tribulation. Abate affirms that in spite of their obvious Biblical inspiration, clear Christian content and undeniable evangelical perspective, LaHaye’s novels demonstrate the powerful position of evangelicals in the rise of the conservative movement, and she argues for “the general place of Christianity in American public education and evangelical faith more specifically” (23). She further points out that in the frame of obscurantism, fanaticism and narrow-mindedness these books offer a frightening perspective by their strong “us versus them” attitude, an “ ‘I told you so’ sense of smugness” (98), negative and even murderous messages about international corporations, multiculturalism and religious diversity. For this reason, the Left Behind series does not offer an encouraging view of the American evangelical community, nor the global religious community.
Chapter 4, “Patriot Acts: Fighting the War on Terror via the Canon Wars in Lynne Cheney’s Picture Books” focuses on Lynne Cheney’s America: A Patriotic Primer (2002), a didactic picture book for children uniting a survey of the alphabet with a historical overview of the United States. It was released as an official project by the commission of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the oldest and most influential conservative public policy research institutions or “think tanks,” who
seek to bridge the perceived gap between the Ivory Tower and Capital Hill by providing analysis about social, economic and political issues with the ultimate – and ideal – goal of helping elected officials make wiser, more informed decisions. (102)
Though this pleasant and cutely illustrated narrative was declared to be in the service of the heroic war on terror after 11th September 2001, Abate shows that the clearly biased Cheney, a long-time senior fellow in education and culture of AEI in the footsteps of William Bennett discussed in Chapter 1, insidiously used her book to continue her previous patriotic fight against changes within the U.S. canon because of growing multiculturalism. This book also proves that children by now cannot escape from the ideological interests and the material reach of public policy research institutions.
Chapter 5, “Pundit Knows Best: The Self-Help Boom, Brand Marketing, and The O’Reilly Factor for Kids” puts media personality Bill O’Reilly into the spotlight, whose nightly current events and political talk program, The O’Reilly Factor made him famous for his highly controversial reception by the American public. O’Reilly is equally popular as an author, who published, among others, The O’Reilly Factor for Kids (2004); yet his multimedia empire is not only a participant in, but also a product of American visual culture, radio and print media, contributing to many of the nation’s problems (150). Although the book is promoted to offer help and wisdom to young readers on the basis of the national traits of self-reliance, practicality and self-improvement, Abate calls attention to the fact that it turns out to be an outstanding example of both a propaganda of sexist and racist traditionalism wrapped in good intentions, and of an egoist self-advertisement, “little more than an extension of the O’Reilly product, brand and especially persona” (130) for the sake of profit. What is more, this simplistic book misjudges the readers’ intellectual capacity.
Chapter 6, “ ‘One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State.’ Bringing Partisan Politics to Picture Books in Katharine DeBrecht’s Help! Mom! Series” is concerned with the Help! Mom! books (2004-2006) written by Katharine DeBrecht, illustrated by Jim Hummel, and released by the World Ahead publishing company in its new line of children’s books. Even though “DeBrecht claims to be protecting her young, innocent, and seemingly ‘impressionable’ readers from what she sees as liberal vices of the adult world” (155), which is definitely a sneaky strategy, Abate successfully demonstrates that her books, with their flat plots, predictable stereotypes and propagandistic messages – not to mention the underlying anti-Semitism illustrating “the ongoing role of the racist Right in the construction of conservative viewpoints” (23) – intend to frighten children. Nevertheless, meant to be a conservative response and even an “antidote” to the relative popularity of left-wing children’s books since the 1990s (153), Abate argues that DeBrecht’s books bring “U. S. partisan perspectives and the current sharp division between the political left and right from the broadside to the bedtime story” (154). Not surprisingly, the series was not left without answer from either side of the political spectrum.
The conclusion, “‘The Gosh-Darnit, Doggone It, You-Betcha Wink Heard ‘Round the World.’ The 2008 Presidential Election, the State of the Conservative Movement, and the Future of Rightist Books for Young Readers” is dedicated to demonstrating how the more than half-century reign of the conservative social movement and rightist political power ended in 2008. Due to the “the ongoing military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan abroad, coupled with the onset of massive financial crises at home” (174), considerably less attention was paid to so-called value issues in U. S. politics. In spite of the Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s 2008 selection for a running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who “reinvigorated the conservative movement, reenergized evangelical voters, and reignited the culture wars” (176), the Democratic nominee Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. While the future success of the Republican Party depends on attracting as many young voters as possible, Abate draws the obvious conclusion that
[o]nly future elections will reveal the comparative success or relative failure of messages contained in the texts like Truax, A is for America, and the Left Behind series for kids on the next generation of U. S. citizens, voters and policy-makers (188).
The question is also left open whether the extremely conservative-rightist literary works for children will continue to enjoy undiminished popularity in the country of the ‘melting pot’ during the 21st century with predictable prospects of increasingly homogenizing human civilization.
Abate carries out an extensive research based on a vast, up-to-date selection of scholarly works. All in all, there seems to be no obvious gap in the content of her study; however, contrary to the reader’s expectations raised by her book’s title, a relatively small part of the whole book is devoted to the literary analyses themselves, when compared to the huge socio-political descriptions. Accordingly, while the introduction and the conclusion provide historical frames for Abate’s analysis, each chapter is heavily detailed with theoretical background information on politics, popular culture and genre theory. Taking the polarization of American political life into account, the book calls for a future complementation on ‘the other side,’ namely the investigation of the propaganda of the liberals and the Democratic Party in children’s literature. Abate so convincingly presents the most vividly dishonest examples of conservative and rightist efforts against either local or global change that, however naïve it might sound, one begins to wonder whether there are any books for children left to read just for the sake of sheer pleasure, without political and commercial messages in contemporary American culture at all.
When all is said and done, fostering an interest in what might be behind the motif of writing fiction and non-fiction for the youth, Michelle Ann Abate’s Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism (2010) is a fascinatingly mind-opening, lucidly argued and well-organized study. Although the author’s political affiliation leaves no doubt, she pursues objectivity by investigating all sides of a given problem. Despite her occasional ironic comments, she balances elegantly between the personal and the academic. It may be no exaggeration to say that, in contributing to the understanding of the penetration of public U. S. politics into the most private spheres, the book under review opens up a wider horizon of research in contemporary American studies, and it is duly recommended to those interested in today’s children’s literature.